The Devil and Ms. Jansen
What is it about the word lobbyist that conjures up such despicable images? The very name summons thoughts of corruption and bribery, of slick, highly paid suits hired by giant corporations in pursuit of backroom deals to benefit a privileged few. News stories about them and their role in the political process inevitably seem to include terms like invasion, army, or battalion.
But however unsavory the reputation of lobbyists may be, they are an undeniably entrenched part of our political process. Lobbyists attempt to influence governmental decisions. They work on behalf of certain companies, causes, and special interests. They've been around in the United States since the early 19th Century, when agents would mill around the lobbies of Congress, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting legislators. In 1999, according to the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics, corporations, labor unions, and other large organizations spent $1.45 billion on lobbying.
While there may be fewer "armies" fighting for nonprofits than for corporate interests, there are indeed lobbyists out there who speak on behalf of those who can't speak for themselves. Instead of opting for big salaries, they stand up for their beliefs and advocate for the poor, the infirm, the very old, the very young--people who so often go unnoticed, uncared-for. Like their big-money counterparts, they still try to win politicians' votes, but that's where the similarity ends.
We've chosen six lobbyists, all from different backgrounds and with different areas of expertise, and asked them why they do what they do. There's a mother of six trying to clean up the rural air her kids breathe. There's a self-appointed data-privacy guru who carries his files in a paper bag instead of a briefcase. And a blind woman who strives to help those with impaired vision--not by offering them welfare checks but by teaching them to help themselves.
These advocates and their brethren may not have the numbers or the expense accounts that corporate lobbyists enjoy. But what they do have is boundless energy and passion. And, on occasion, that's all they need to win their wars.
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
From the walls lined with photos of her six kids to the playground across the driveway of the nine-acre farmstead, Julie Jansen's home is the epitome of familial affection. But scratch that bucolic veneer and you'll find exhaustion, frustration, and despair. As Jansen bustles from her home office through the kitchen, she rattles off a list of more than two dozen fluffy pets currently roaming the house. The number used to be higher. "We even had chameleons," she says, shaking her head. "They all died because of the air quality out here."
For the past seven years, Jansen has shouted and cried at anyone who will listen, lobbying to protect her family and friends from the pollution caused by 17 giant hog feedlots located in central Minnesota's Renville County, where she has lived all her life. Jansen contends that the feedlots, or more accurately, the surrounding open lagoons that store massive amounts of pig manure, emit extremely high levels of noxious gases that not only stink so badly it's impossible to be outside, but also make animals and humans violently ill.
Jansen and her family bought the farmstead, just outside Olivia, Minnesota, in 1989. Jansen's husband Jeff is a truck driver, and Jansen herself started a daycare on the farm. Then in 1993 the first feedlot was built nearby. Today there are two: One is less than a mile to the southwest; the other--which has 16,000 animals--is a mile and a half to the southeast.
By the summer of 1994, Jansen and her family were often ill, with symptoms from headaches and breathing problems to nausea and diarrhea. On July 4, 1995, the whole family was completely incapacitated by the stench invading the house. Wondering whether methane or other gases in the animal manure caused the sickness, Jansen called the poison-control center. She learned that all of their symptoms could be caused by another gas found in hog manure, hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide could be deadly, and she and her family needed to get out of the house, she was told. They drove 45 minutes to Spicer. By the time they got there, everyone was fine.
"I just started crying," Jansen remembers. "I knew right then that we had been poisoned all those months. When the wind was from the south, we were sick. When the wind was from the north, we were fine."
Jansen tried to enlist the help of the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, hoping that someone would come in and monitor the gas levels. Reluctantly the agencies eventually took some readings, and though they found hydrogen sulfide levels that were more than five times the legal limit, they told Jansen the tests were inconclusive. With the help of neighbors, Jansen rented equipment and began a detailed, standardized protocol to measure the emissions.
Even with her results--measurements in her own backyard and on the lots surrounding the hog farms that regularly indicated illegal levels of hydrogen sulfide--the conglomerates that own the feedlots have received only token punishments, Jansen complains. "We thought [the government] would protect us. But you have to fight for environmental protections--sometimes for a long time," she says. "There's a lot of sad stories in this state."
Jansen first testified in front of the Minnesota legislature during the 1995-1996 session. Shy and apolitical, she was terrified: She wrote her name on a piece of paper in front of her, afraid she would forget it. But she was also creative. She carried a briefcase containing plastic baggies filled with air from her home, passing them around to legislators to smell. Later she brought pails of pig manure into the capitol, though security guards prevented her from opening them and measuring the gas levels, as she'd planned. (Her heartfelt, feisty testimony led Mark Dayton to ask her to be his running mate in his 1998 gubernatorial campaign.)
Jansen is especially angered when public officials cavalierly tell her to move. "There's nowhere else we could move," she says, taking out a map of the county and pointing to all the feedlots. "At least I know what I'm dealing with here. We're seven years ahead of every other site in the county." Besides, her family would have to go into bankruptcy in order to move, because no one wants to buy their land. Moreover, she stresses, she and her neighbors shouldn't have to go anywhere. Instead, the people breaking the law should have to clean up their mess.
"It makes me angry that something like this has to be a political issue. It's a human health issue," exclaims Jansen. "I have not been up [at the capitol] one year and not cried yet. It is so personal. They're hurting people I love and care about."
To further solidify her point, Jansen, who for the past two years officially has worked as a lobbyist for Clean Water Action Alliance, likes to take visitors on a tour of the area feedlots. She hops in her black Pontiac Grand Am and drives along the lonely county roads. She rolls down her window as she points out the manure lagoons. Even in the dead of winter, the stench is appalling. Your head hurts immediately and you must hold your breath to avoid throwing up. At one farm, she points out four dead pigs whose carcasses have been thrown out the barn door and left to freeze in the snow.
Once you've seen these images, smelled these reeking odors, it's both easy and hard to understand how Jansen keeps going. As she looks ahead to the coming session, she worries that a ban on new manure lagoons, which expires this year, won't be extended. She worries that the legislature will try to revoke some of the local controls that have allowed citizens to help regulate these feedlots. She's worried that she'll run into the same governmental red tape when she raises her concerns that the manure pools have tainted the area's groundwater.
"I'll be glad when I can quit, because then it will be over," Jansen says. But until then, when it gets hard she prays a lot. "I don't go to church every Sunday because I have to. I go to church because I need to. I need to hear the words of encouragement."
But it's not easy. "Time's been taken away from my kids," Jansen says with a sigh, recalling all the occasions when she's been called upon by neighbors and people in other towns to help with their air-quality battles. Once, she remembers, her daughter Kari had a piano recital, and though Jansen had promised to be there and take her to dinner afterward, she got a call from a despairing neighbor asking her to come to a feedlot meeting. She told Kari she'd go to the recital, but asked if they could postpone dinner to another day and instead attend the meeting. Jansen said she would change plans only if Kari said it was all right, and the nine-year-old agreed.
As they drove to the meeting after the recital, Jansen recalls, Kari suddenly spoke up. "I get it. You're just like the Bible story we learned in Sunday school, about the hurt man on the road," Kari said. "People kept walking by, even a priest walked by. Finally someone stopped to help him. That's you, isn't it?"
Jansen pulled the car over and started to cry.
THE HUMBLE CHAMPION
Imagine, for a moment, that the year is 1997, and you are Eric Picht. Having deposited your paycheck into your checking account, you use four checks to make four purchases totaling $50.25. But your paycheck bounces. As a result, your four checks bounce as well, and the businesses that received them attempt to retrieve the money you owe them, along with additional fees. Your employer promises to make good on his bounced check, and you continue to work for him. He does not make good on the paycheck, nor does he pay you for your continued work. Eventually you sue and are awarded nearly $3,900. But your employer never pays it.
Aware that you still owe money on the four checks you bounced, you try to work out a plan with the collection agency. You send the collector the $50.25 you owe, along with a schedule to pay the additional fees you've incurred. The collector returns your check, and instead, in January 1998, sues you for nearly $1,000--an amount that includes a $400 civil penalty, $120 in fees, $200 for civil-theft damages, and other "statutory costs." The next month, before there has even been a judgment in your case, the collector's attorney freezes your bank account.
If you are one of many, many Minnesotans who scrape by from paycheck to paycheck, this chain of events is catastrophic. That's why Ron Elwood, a legislative advocate for the Legal Services Advocacy Project, considers a law he worked on last year one of his biggest successes. The addition to Minnesota Statutes section 332.50 may seem small, but to Elwood one simple sentence--In determining the amount of the penalty, the court shall consider the amount of the check and the reason for nonpayment--is a huge victory for the Eric Pichts of the state. The law now clarifies that in order for a merchant to get the legal maximum in penalties--$100 per bounced check--he must prove in court that the award is deserved.
"Certainly not everybody has a legitimate excuse, but now you have to demonstrate that the $100 is warranted," Elwood explains. "When you live in a precarious week-to-week paycheck situation, when the dominoes start to fall, it just compounds the problem. These are deterrent laws--they shouldn't be used to punish people."
In addition to the bad-check law, Elwood has worked on legislation to limit the sky-high costs charged by rent-to-own companies. While there are laws that cap the level of interest consumers must pay on items bought on credit, the rent-to-own industry claims that its charges are not interest, because the purchase--be it a TV, a sofa, or a dishwasher--is not consummated until the last rental payment is made. The industry, Elwood explains, says the high rates are fair because the stores often rent to people who do not have adequate credit to buy the merchandise elsewhere.
"Even with affluent consumers, an interest rate beyond a certain amount is considered usurious--it's unconscionable," Elwood exclaims. "Why should low-income people be held to a different standard and be allowed to be charged? How is it any less unconscionable? In some ways, we'd argue, it's more unconscionable."
Elwood's current job is ideal for him. He landed the work in 1998, after falling "crazy in love" and moving from New York to Minnesota. Though he had already had a 15-year career regulating utilities with the New York State Public Services Commission, he had never served as a legislative lobbyist. He's quick to commend his colleagues for helping him learn the ins and outs of Minnesota politics. And, Elwood readily explains, there are plenty of differences between St. Paul and Albany.
"The political system here is as close to pure democracy as you're going to find in America," Elwood proclaims. "There's no way you'd call up a state legislator in New York and have them get on the phone. In Minnesota, lobbyists are told to wait 'because my constituent is my priority.'"
At the same time, Elwood has had to get used to working for an advocacy group where resources are far less grand than in New York state government, a reality that can make it difficult to fight large companies with their myriad lobbyists. "You're running all over the place," he says. "You can't split yourself into 100 pieces if you're one person; but if you've got 100 people, it's a lot easier to cover the waterfront."
Still, Elwood says he's encouraged by the growing number of low-income advocates at the capitol, and victories like the bad-check legislation show that it is possible to make an impact. And besides, Elwood admits, sometimes it's those other lobbyists, either by explanation or example, who help him understand the unwritten rules of etiquette. For instance, it took him awhile to understand that there's a no-lobbyist rule on the carpeted areas in front of the house and senate chambers. "How would I know that?" he asks with a laugh. "There are no signs that say 'Keep off the carpet. No lobbyists allowed.'
"No one," he quips, "gives you a handbook."
THE WEIRD GUY
Richard Neumeister is something like a broker in the commodity of information. His major political interest, the thing that pulls him back to the capitol year in, year out, is access to information. It's a realm that is at once narrow and broad, and at first glance Neumeister's twin goals seem almost contradictory: protecting our right to information and safeguarding our right to privacy.
"Information is power. Information is key. Information is access." It's Neumeister's anthem.
In essence Neumeister wants to ensure that citizens have access to information that is deemed public, that governments and other entities can't withhold data they are legally bound to share. Of course, information also can be dangerous, which is why the other prong of his self-appointed mission is to protect individuals' privacy.
For nearly a quarter-century Neumeister has spent almost every day of every legislative session at the capitol, testifying about bills and their potential effect on data-privacy issues. With his lanky frame, long, loose hair, and bushy beard, Neumeister certainly stands out among the staid suits. "Whenever there's a brand-new legislator, I like to see if I pass the weird-guy test," he says with a smile bordering on the mischievous. "Maybe they ask in a backroom, 'Who's that weird guy who hangs around? He's here at 7:00 a.m. and stays to 5:00 p.m. He carries his stuff in a paper bag!'
"Maybe the new folks might say, 'He's just a citizen. He's not one of the professional lobbyists.' Maybe sometimes I'm disregarded," Neumeister continues. "But then they realize that I'm someone who has a positive rapport with many legislators. I'm someone who knows his stuff, who does his homework."
In some ways his mere presence at the capitol serves to safeguard the flow of information. Simply by being there he often catches wind of pending legislation that might infringe on people's rights. During hectic sessions when laws are often made or killed before they have a chance to undergo public scrutiny, Neumeister is able to pounce at a moment's notice. "Things are done so quickly," he explains. "There are so many things you don't see."
Neumeister has spent as much time at the capitol as the legions of paid lobbyists, only he has done so from a sense of personal devotion. It's a separate, second career that pays only in the currency of occasional small victories or the compliments he gets when friends and foes acknowledge his effect on a particular bill. "There are so many things I've been involved with," Neumeister muses. "My fingerprints are on many laws."
Perhaps that's a fitting role for someone like Neumeister, who has always had an infatuation with politics and current events. He grew up living in public housing with a father who was a disabled veteran, witnessing such seminal events as John F. Kennedy's inauguration and subsequent assassination. At Hamline University he studied political science and sociology, and he spent time working in Washington, D.C., before returning to the Twin Cities and working for the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. But he soon found that the group dynamic wasn't quite right for him. "It was always consensus building--you can't do this because you need to build consensus," he says. "Consensus-building is too slow for the process. You've got to be fluid and flexible, and that's what an individual can do."
Plus, speaking as a citizen offers Neumeister an advantage in the political gambit. "[Lawmakers] don't know where I'm coming from," he explains. "They know I'm principled, that I'm not doing this for money."
Neumeister spends less time at the capitol than he once did, partly because of his job constraints. (Until 1997 Neumeister worked weekends as a counselor for the Wilder Foundation, leaving his weekdays open for lobbying. Today he pays the bills with two part-time jobs: driving a van that transports the disabled and working as a clerk at Shinder's.) But he's not quite ready to give up his berth as the resident fly in the ointment. Especially this session, as he sees all sorts of red flags in planned antiterrorism legislation that would both curtail people's rights to privacy and their access to public information.
"It's nice to see that legislators over the years have been responsive to a citizen. That, to me, is a victory. Before I die I want to let people know that you can make a difference."
THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE
First you hear the gentle tapping of the white cane. Then she appears before you, prim in a proper pink suit. As you introduce yourself, she follows your voice, reaching out a dainty hand to shake yours. Poised, she leads the way, familiar with every crevice in this grand old south Minneapolis building--replete with leaded glass and delicately carved woodwork--and sits down, ready to talk.
"I always had poor eyesight," begins Joyce Scanlan, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. "But it was not exactly socially positive to be blind. You fall into traps. One trap is to avoid admitting that you're blind. You pretend you're sighted. In other words, you lie.
"When you do that, you end up losing out on a lot of opportunities and information," she goes on. "You kind of withdraw into yourself."
It's precisely that personal experience that led Scanlan to politics. In the late 1960s, while she was teaching high school English, Scanlan was diagnosed with glaucoma. Though she began treatment, it wasn't long before her vision failed completely. Terrified that the school would fire her, Scanlan quit. "I just fled," she recalls. "I had a difficult time for quite a while because I was by myself, trying to figure out how to deal with this."
In 1970 the National Federation of the Blind held its convention in Minneapolis. A friend of Scanlan's persuaded her to go, although Scanlan admits she was wary. Serendipitously, that year the organization was trying to help teachers who were threatened with dismissal because of their blindness. Scanlan eagerly took up the cause and got more and more involved with the group, which today has 50,000 members across the country, with about 500 in Minnesota. "The issues have changed," she explains. "A lot of the job discrimination has been helped. There are improved opportunities. But the unemployment rate among the working blind is very high."
Even though the issues have changed in the 29 years since Scanlan was elected president of Minnesota's NFB (a post she still holds), the constant principle underlying her work is that blind people must be allowed to be independent. They should be taught the skills they need to take care of themselves, live by themselves, go to school, and work if they want.
"I can do anything I want to do and need to do. I can do anything a sighted person can, except I don't drive cars or buses or planes. I haven't figured out how to do that yet," Scanlan explains. "I may not have the skills others have, but I don't think eyesight is the thing that qualifies or doesn't qualify me. It doesn't mean that I have to stay home."
Scanlan's attempts to improve public policy have been met with everything from enthusiasm to apathy. "Right now we're at a real down point," she says. "We have no support from the governor. We have poor relations with the commissioners and State Services for the Blind. We have had times in the past when there were problems, but we've been able to work through the difficulties. There's a very different attitude now."
Among other problems, Scanlan explains, Minnesota's State Services for the Blind is an amalgam of physical and social rehabilitation and job-skill development. Because a large portion of its budget goes toward job-training programs, services for the blind fall under the auspices of the state's Department of Economic Security, rather than under the Department of Human Services, where the program was located until 1985. As a result, those responsible for overseeing the services for the blind have more expertise in economic development than understanding of the needs of blind people.
"They've cut out programs they had and haven't really replaced them. [They] have no interest in blind people, no interest in learning about the problems blind people face in their daily lives," Scanlan complains. "We have to make people comfortable with the fact that we're blind, and we're going to do things differently. But we're going to get the job done."
But she has few illusions that her fight will be easy--especially under the current administration. "I don't think we'll get much support," she acknowledges. "The tone is what gets me. The tone is indicative of a feeling of disdain. They make you feel like some lowlife.
"This is the worst I've ever seen it," she continues, adding that she plans to outlast her adversaries, even if it takes years. "I have every hope that we'll get through it. Let's hope we get through it before they destroy everything."
THE GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
The problem with fighting for the underdog is that, unfortunately, no matter the righteousness of the cause or the injustice of the defeat, the underdog often loses. In his three and a half years as executive director of All Parks Alliance for Change, James Paist has become oh so aware of that. As a nonprofit that lobbies for the rights of residents of mobile-home parks (or the preferred term, manufactured-home parks), APAC represents some of the state's poorest homeowners. And it does so while trying to deflect the knee-jerk "trailer trash" response of some municipal governments where these homes reside.
Seated in a tiny, ramshackle office in St. Paul's Midway area, Paist spends a moment thinking back two years, to APAC's struggle to get the Brainerd City Council to pass a law that would help mobile-home residents. "They were so rude and disrespectful," he recalls. At the time the residents of some 20 homes in the Lakeview Mobile Home Park were threatened with eviction because a developer had bought the park--and its coveted lake view. Most of the homes were too old to be moved into any of the city's other manufactured-home parks. And that, Paist explains, meant that the residents, most of whom owned their homes but rented the land underneath them, would lose their investments when the developer ousted them to make room for lakefront townhouses.
Technically, Minnesota law requires developers to pay relocation costs to mobile-home owners who are forced to move because their parks are shut down. But there's a catch: For the law to take effect, each city must pass it on a local level. That's how APAC ended up in Brainerd in the spring of 2000. The campaign, in the end, proved fruitless. The city council voted down the ordinance.
"That was by far the biggest disappointment," Paist whispers. "The park residents were completely demoralized." He has remained in touch with some of the families who lost their homes, and while everyone found a place to move to--thanks to local churches and social-service agencies, not to the city government, he points out bitterly--all of the families but one completely lost their investment.
Paist is quick to point out that other cities, including Roseville, Apple Valley, and Red Wing, have been more welcoming of mobile-home parks. And that, in part, is what keeps him going. Born and raised in St. Paul, Paist studied political science at Hamline University, and worked in community organizing and fundraising after graduating. At APAC, he aims to bring the manufactured-home park residents together, to offer them as much information about their rights as possible so they can work together.
"The strategy here is for residents of the park to reach out to their neighbors and unite," Paist says, punctuating the word unite by pumping his fists in the air. "We help people to help themselves."
This year, Paist says, he will continue to lobby cities to pass park-closing ordinances. In addition, APAC is helping to ensure that owners of older mobile homes aren't forced out of parks, and making it possible for manufactured-home residents to form cooperatives to purchase their parks--especially those threatened with closure.
With an image shift, it might become clear to the public that manufactured homes can be part of the solution to the affordable-housing crisis in the Twin Cities, Paist argues. "It's an immediate and direct way to preserve affordable housing," he says. "It also allows homeowners to share in a community that's more permanent--almost like property owners."
"Last year was pretty depressing. This year is even worse."
The words might sound overly pessimistic, but don't be fooled: The woman who utters them, Mercy Olson Ward, lives up to her unusual first name. The lobbyist for the YWCA of Minneapolis, Olson Ward presses the nonprofit's public-policy agenda on behalf of women, children, and minorities. Her heartfelt idealism is reflected in her goals: To help low-income families; to equalize pay rates among men and women; and to improve race relations. But she tempers those wishes with a realism that, though sometimes saddening, helps her to focus on those legislative battles she might actually be able to win.
The coming session will be Olson Ward's second as the YWCA's public-policy coordinator, and she isn't overly optimistic about what lies ahead--especially given her experience last year. "There were no real victories. Nothing was real positive," she begins, adding that she's even more fearful about what will happen this year given the state's expected $2 billion deficit. "The governor is pretty willing to take funding out of these budgets. These are budgets that affect the very lowest income."
One major issue that's continuing from last year is welfare reform. "We fought so hard last year on welfare," Olson Ward says. "And people just didn't want to budge. All they knew is that they didn't want to spend money on it." Olson Ward is especially concerned about those working poor families who will lose their childcare subsidies, but who don't earn enough to pay for the care without help.
As a half-black, half-white woman, Olson Ward is always aware that hers is a minority presence at the capitol. "One of the first times I went there, I had my hair braided," she remembers. "People kept touching my hair. They couldn't even resist." But at the same time, she notes, her own race and gender lend her a certain credibility when she lobbies on issues of equality. "It affords you something. They take you more seriously."
During last year's racial-profiling debate, Olson Ward recalls, she would go home each night and cry about the horrible things she'd heard in committee. "It takes such patience, such strength to hold back when you want to break out in committee about how stupid they're acting," she says. "The right wing has a very systematic approach to taking our rights away. We need to work our butts off to keep that from happening."
Despite the personal pain she feels whenever her causes are defeated, Olson Ward maintains that hers is the perfect job. After receiving her undergraduate degree in psychology from Bethel College, Olson Ward anticipated working as a counselor. But after spending two years working on race relations with a Twin Cities nonprofit, she realized she wanted to broaden her scope to trying to change public policy instead of helping individuals sort through their problems. She attended the U of M's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, studying race relations and gerontology. And then she landed her current job.
This year Olson Ward is concerned about several key issues, including abortion rights, concealed weapons, and gambling--specifically the prospect of the state opening its own casino. "I see that as a direct attack on Native American rights," she explains. "It takes away their basic treaty rights and puts other casinos out of business."
Before the legislative session, Olson Ward spends hours and hours with other advocates who lobby on the same issues she does, trying to figure out the best strategies. "We need to make sure we're complementing what others are doing, or at least not getting in their way," Olson Ward says. "If you're asking for too similar things, they won't give it to you because you seem like a fragmented community."
She also tries to organize affected citizens to testify before legislators. Most of those vulnerable citizens are working hard--often at three jobs--just to make ends meet, so taking a day off to come to the capitol is a tough task. "It's important that they have their voices heard," Olson Ward insists. "[The legislators] have seen my face. But when they see average people, talking from their hearts, that can change them."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.